A Comment On The New York Times Article Of July 18, 2011
Subject: “Safety-first” Playground Equipment– Does It Stunt Emotional Development?
This particular New York Times article, “Grasping Risk In Life’s Classroom,” gives me a launching pad for publishing a three-thousand-word story here at patnotes.com. The original story written by me, “To Neutral,” was carefully edited and re-edited by me throughout a year or so. Just like the other short story here at patnotes.com, this second story received no prize or praise, it was simply submitted to the mid-south magazine contest. The story that beat it out and won a thousand dollars was set in New Orleans, the protagonist was male with a lazy streak, flaunting a trait of nonproductivity, and the author was rather well known in the mid-south. My story, “To Neutral,” is set in the southwest, in Texas, a few decades ago, features a tomboy type of female teenager, and deals with her unquenchable desire to take a risk in outdoor play, just like the confident high-school football players that she observed were doing.
Isn’t that just like The New York Times to give a writer (John Tierney) a revisitation of the concept of liability on the school playground? It is the newspaper of newspapers in the sense that such thoroughly researched writing about minor topics can be found daily. We readers know, when we take the time to consider it, the problem of risk management to avoid injury is a problem present through the decades. How do parents, teachers, older sisters and brothers, and others watch over and protect active, healthy children equipped to spread their wings and experience mastery?
The article’s title is: “Grasping Risk in Life’s Classroom,”
and the photo caption reads:
“LIVE AND LEARN: A bad fall may mean
a child is less likely to have a fear of heights later in life,”
and on the second page, the heading reads:
“Life’s Classroom, The Ever-Safer Playground.”
Up front in the article, the quote set in a larger-size font hooks the reader:
“Efforts to regulate playground equipment may stunt a child’s emotional development.”
The excellence of the writing in The New York Times gives readers ideas for conversing. I discussed this particular article with my husband, who was an “all-boy” type of kid. He got a broken arm playing outdoors. He remembers this risk-versus-safety conflict as a kindergartener of the 1950s– teachers set firm restrictions against climbing to the heights of the monkey bars. This succeeded in making playground time boring, he recalls.
The article quotes someone saying, “I grew up on the monkey bars in Fort Tryon Park, and I never forgot how good it felt to get to the top of them.” He grew up to be the Park Commissioner. Someone was quoted as saying “I think monkey bars and tall slides are great. As playgrounds become more and more boring, these are some of the few features (going missing) that can give children thrilling experiences with heights and high speed.”
My memory went to my own determination to raise independent, brave, and imaginative children. Our first-born, a daughter, climbed high, very high in a magnolia tree in the backyard. She went up so high (about thirty-six feet), we really did not know what to do when we saw her. Yell out “Get down?” What good would that do? She became a fearless equestrian. She taught a tall young Thoroughbred how to go into the hunter show ring.
Our other child, a boy, as a tot tumbled off a high metal slide in a nearby park, which we renamed “Pokehead Park.” As I recall, his righting of his consciousness took less time than when he sailed off a low bed head first he was jumping on at home. That bedroom tumble was called a concussion, and our little boy could not be allowed to go to sleep for a number of hours– doctor’s orders. One further outdoor memory of risky business is of climbing a slightly dilapidated fire tower on a country road in middle Tennessee. The higher we four went, the more we, parents and two children, held each other’s hands and the handrail. The scariest view was to look down between the wooden steps. Once on the top weatherbeaten platform, we could breathe again, and prepare for the descent, equally as scary as ascending.
Let us get on with the telling of the adventure story of Marty, strong-willed girl with time on her hands and a big imagination, during one hot Texas summer. Previously titled “Rhapsody On Ravine And Vine,” I renamed the story “To Neutral,” and I present it here:
Long ago, a tree grew a branch across a ravine toward the east sun, even though its roots grew the other way. Growing around the branch was a thick rough vine, one like Tarzan of the old movies would swing from. For an imaginative girl, the scene seemed straight out of the Amazon forest. The girl doing the imagining lived at the ravine’s edge. She was the Arins’ second daughter Marty, who took extraordinary notice of that tree. She logged many auspicious observations from the family’s backyard tree house. “Don’t you swing on that vine, Martera Jean,” Nadine, Marty’s mother, cautioned. Nadine’s mother Memaw helped marshal more nurturing force to tame Nadine’s second-born—Marty the adventurer, Marty the strong and the quick.
A second-born girl, in her own mind, urgently needs to separate to be different from her older sister. Marty’s sister LaWanda sat indoors playing the piano. Thus, outdoor activity attracted Marty like a magnet. From Marty’s perspective, a ravine in her own backyard required exploration. You climbed down, one way or another; you were a lucky dog if you had access to a rough, natural place. It provided opportunity for deep solitude. People who lived in the urban cove or attended the nearby high school were not looking for an Amazon-warrior adventure. But Marty had three wild and crazy girlfriends who would scuffle down the ravine’s side with her by rappelling, a rope flung over, sculling with a stick or two, and bracing feet against deep-rooted rocks. It was a feat so few girls would attempt, especially LaWanda. The two sisters would banter, “The thing to remember is to step fast so you don’t roll.”
“Yeah, well, I’ll go down there when the creek runs dry!”
“The creek is dry. I’m not asking you to rappel somethin’ slippery.”
“Let’s just leave it as what attracts you ‘rappels’ me!”
“Well, if you would rappel down you might not be so repelled!”
LaWanda loved words and loved to make people laugh. She was a busy twenty-something, out on her own, with a fiancé, and too much at stake to risk her neck for an urban jungle expedition. Not Marty. From her tree-house perch, she observed the high-school football players who would come to the tree, grab the vine they had tethered, and swing to the other side, thirty feet away. “If they can do it, so can I!” she reasoned, hearing their howls of laughter after the daredevilry. Seeing them flexing their oversized muscles and beating their chests before they grabbed the vine and sprang off the edge, she thought of them first as monkeys, who then transformed into ghosts riding to the other side. She told her ravine friends who risked scraped elbows, palms, and knees that one day she, too, would ride that ravine. She just knew that one day she would go up, stand under that tree, reach for the vine, and jump. It would be the ride of her life.
She meant it. It was a matter of timing. On the day that was the Day of Days for the Arins family, Marty went. She pushed off against the steep side clutching the thick vine in no ordinary grip; the rough-edged vine became her umbilical cord to continued life above the dry creek bed twenty feet below. Prior to doing the act, she had considered the horizontal along with the vertical: the propulsion had to be huge; she had at least thirty linear feet to traverse. A sufficient push would give entrée into the in-group of the tall, the brave, the experienced. She had watched these elite riders rise up from their mighty thrusts and make it across the ravine. Through two seasons, as she sauntered in the creek bed, emotionally bonding with the vine-wrapped tree, seeing it against pale skies, she analyzed the flight trajectory, twenty feet up, thirty feet across.
A summer breeze blew gently. “I’m riding that ravine,” Marty announced, darkly, to Martha, Rita, and Leta. She separated, and went to the fabled post. At the edge, she hunkered down into reliable shoes, lucky shoes, the best sprinting shoes, toes to the starting block. Toes ready for the push of a lifetime, Marty untethered the vine and tugged firmly on it. It was long, and had a foot left over like a tail.
Marty went, even though doubts gathered like storm clouds: “Don’t Marty, MARTY!” and her ears reverberated her mother’s voice of warning, “Don’t you do what those boys’re doin’!” She went anyway, springing off, engaging the flight . . .
OH! The thrill! . . . She floated through the air . . . OH! . . . the freedom, the one true, free act philosophers talk about that lasts for a lifetime! Oh, to push off and sail, to have a perfect float, that was her desire. “Now I am the ghost . . . a faint trace of who I was . . .” she mouthed, glancing at the dry landscape under her, littered with rocks and broken limbs. She was sailing, sailing against the wind, high above the dry bed below.
Now for the flight’s finish: brain, in red-alert mode, fires synapses, tricky business here . . . “Stretch toes to the approaching edge, get those sneakers a toe-hold . . . c’mon, c’mon toes, get long and get a hold . . .” “What?! . . . NO! . . . NO! . . . Can’t!! Goll-ee . . .” No toe-hold. She was short, the push insufficient, job not done. “Help us, Hannah!” Marty cried, having no landing, no way to cross, no touching down on the other side. Short flight, short shrift . . . the ride across to the other side got eclipsed. Marty would be a human plumb line hanging straight. Hands would be aching. Palms would rub raw. It wouldn’t be long and the ground would come up to meet her.
“Ugh” . . . thrusting, scooting higher up the vine . . . alarm bells went off in her head, “OH! . . . Thrash, thrust, propel yourself, girl!” She saw the plain picture of a terrible scene, “Goh . . . uh . . . ah . . .al . . . lee!” No possibility of momentum. No chance to touch the other side. No redoing the thing. No going back. The creepy finish approached, stiller, and stiller. Marty, neutralized, was left hanging. A scary predicament was at hand, literally. All she had was the rough vine scraping raw palms. She held on. Nothing else to do.
The girlfriends yelled. Nadine was in the house. Would she come, they wondered? “Nadine! Help! Memaw! Help!” But those two ladies were old. What could they do—drag a mattress out the back door and throw it down the ravine? Stupid thought.
Everyone knew LaWanda’s fiance drove an ambulance. “Get Howard on the phone!” “She can’t hold on long!” “Go call him; hurry up!” Marty’s palms were moistening. She squirmed and threw one hand over the other, wincing, as seconds ticked by. She was at zero looking down at the spot where she would drop. It was just a matter of time. She wondered how soon LaWanda and Howard could rescue her. “Stupid thought. LaWanda can’t get down this cliff. What’s Howard gonna do in the next two minutes before I slip off the end?”
She tried to articulate more thoughts: “My life could be over real soon; nothing is available; friends are watching . . . I am hanging in the air utterly, completely neutralized . . . sliding . . . off the end . . . “Ah, Mama . . . Oh, Jesus . . . it was all happening fast! ARGH!” . . . the fall came, onto a limb-littered streambed strewn with rocks, the wrong bed in which to tend the injury sustained—a fractured right elbow. “Ugh . . . foolish . . . foolish . . . why did I bend my arm!” A few thoughts raced on. All 130 pounds of dead weight went onto the arm, arm screaming louder than the girls’ voices. Nerve endings went crazy. The lights in Marty’s awareness flickered and went out, she a plangent heap against an unfriendly floor. Nadine came with Martha to look over the edge at her unconscious daughter. She saw Marty’s head bleeding. “Lord, what are we gonna do?” said Nadine. “Call Howard. He’ll bring a stretcher. He’ll need Rex.”
The two men got to Marty, not without tricky maneuvers and LaWanda’s unwieldy attempts at going down. They strapped Marty onto the stretcher, and then the bigger challenge began—where to scale the slope. They settled on using Marty’s rappelling rope, weathered, but tied in a good spot. Would it hold two men and some dead weight? Good team training and with luck holding, the men got halfway up the slope then, “Oh, my gosh! Grab her!” Marty’s sixty-degree-angled body, flat-out against the canvas, slid through the straps, almost leaving the frame. Howard grabbed a handful of her hair, and kept on grabbing it, all the way up the slope. Marty felt her scalp’s screams subside as the men strode across the acre of backyard, into the street to the ambulance. A couple of slight jostles and she was loaded and off, siren blaring out the terrible predicament all the way to the Methodist Hospital. The young, defeated Amazon warrior got all the help she needed to survive the ordeal. In terms of ancient mythology, however, this warrior had passed muster. She had done the deed.
Thirty-plus years later, in a talk with a friend from the old, first neighborhood, Skyline Heights, the one before the suburban ravine neighborhood, Marty still remembered her screaming scalp, a handful of her hair in Howard’s hand, as he, Rex, and LaWanda rescued her on a stretcher. “It hurt! Pat, I’ll never forget my screaming scalp! Man, it hurt! It took my mind off my broken arm! If I were a crier, that would have been crying time for me!”
“Why did you do it?” Patrea, the early girlhood friend, asked her. “Pat, I know something about myself. I get a feeling and I can’t stop it. Sometimes I have to go do something. Can’t stay the same, can’t let go the feeling. So I go on and do the thing,” Marty answered. “Maybe you need meds!” Patrea joked.
“Naw . . . it’s not like that.”
“How come I didn’t know about it; I didn’t know that second neighborhood!”
“We were older. I was in high school. Neighbors changing neighborhoods had already separated us. There was a lot of change going on. You know, those Sixties.”
“Yeah, I know the Sixties. Well, we should have held onto each other. Even if it was by the hair!” Patrea guffawed.
“We had to grow up– Avenue A where we played was . . . small homes . . . you know, nowhere to disappear in houses that small. Our mothers beautified them, and our daddies stood up those flocked trees at Christmas.”
“Yeah. You used to knock on my door every day. When I was at your door, I would ask Memaw if you could come out and play. We pretended we were ranchers, fixing the miniature horses in the flowerbeds left and right of your front porch. We arranged those little rubber horses for hours. I don’t remember what we said galloping the horses and riders across, back and forth, ranch to ranch. Marty piped up, “Probably, ‘See ya later, pardner; I’m headin’ to town.’ It was a safe neighborhood; nobody got hurt; well, wait . . . Glenda crashed skating downhill and got a bloody ankle. We wore the skate keys on a string around our necks, remember?” Patrea nodded, and continued, “Well, I should’a stayed by you; I guess I was shallow, pursuing popularity . . . maybe you wouldn’t have taken that risk . . . with your life . . . were you restless? Did you miss me?”
“You had your friends; I had mine . . . you were in the junior high then. What surprised me was that LaWanda actually went down that slope with Howard and Rex when they came to get me! She nearly somersaulted, but Howard caught her by her belt. They both fell down; Wanda got pretty scratched up, and she was already bawling. They kept telling her, ‘Sit more; bend your knees!’ but she just flailed around until she got to me . . . my wild and crazy friends said you would have thought she was saving herself, she was so intent! She tried to hold me onto the stretcher, but she was bleeding; oh, it was messy! Without Rex, . . . Whew! I don’t know. But, I can still use my arm. This scar on my head is small.”
“Yeah, the arm scar gets looks, I guess. I never broke my arm. Here– a present. It’s a little horse and rider . . . made in Germany; it’s from an upscale toy store. Open the card first; it has the coolest quote.” The card Patrea gave Marty pictured two smiling girls posing, one a little taller, dressed exactly alike, except for their shoes. It read: ‘In a friend you find a second self.’
“Thank you.” Marty opened the present. “It’s so cute. I’m going to play with it.” She galloped the little horse and rider by rocking her hand across the end table. “Yeah, after I got out of the hospital, Wanda morphed into a SU-PREME nurse, after the surgeon put the pin in my arm and all.”
“She’s your only sister. She was a pretty capable big sister, I remember.”
“Still is. Mostly, she knows humor. She juiced me up, laughing so much. She did the same thing when I landed flat on my back.
“Oh, no! When was that?”
“I got thrown from a horse.”
“What was the horse’s problem?”
“It didn’t want to be ridden any more.” Patrea asked for a few details, as fitting in polite conversation, then realized their time was at a close. “I’ll hear more about that later,” she said.
“Humor is disappointment turned on its head,” Marty commented, drawing down the pleasant reconnection time.
“Wanda sees humor; she truly does. Humor . . . I would say . . . It is liquid refreshment– like a prime juice. It leaks out through the healed cracks of brokenness.”
“Oh, nice! You majored in English, didn’t you?”
“It’s true, people in pain may feel they’re in a desert place, thirsty . . . or hungry,” Patrea continued, “The LaWandas of the world are the decanters. They decant the premium juice– humor. Not the ordinary human juices, you know, saliva . . . but the prime human juice– humor.”
“Yeah, I get your metaphor.”
It was LaWanda who got Martera and Patrea back talking after so many years. Those talks evolved in no time from “What is your last name now?” to talk of riding a horse in a dream, gloriously. At the end of the face-to-face time, Marty trotted the gift her old friend had selected, “See ya later, pardner. I’m headin’ to town.”
“Make sure you don’t try to jump the ravine up ahead.”
“Oh, I think I could ride that ravine.”